Over the last few years, the fashion world has embraced virtual reality in spurts; it has been utilized repeatedly, but so far, results have read as surface noise versus impact on the industry’s fundamentals.
As proven by designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Rebecca Minkoff, who have courted in-store foot traffic through VR screenings of their latest runway shows, and publications including InStyle and Elle Canada, which have excited readers with VR films of their cover shoots, virtual reality is certainly a successful marketing tool. However, it remains to be seen if the effects of virtual reality can or will go beyond marketing, offering crucial data to retailers and transforming fashion experiences large (fashion week) and small (shopping).
Those with intimate knowledge of the technology and its potential agree that fashion’s dalliance with VR has only skimmed the surface. Danny Drohojowsky, the head of creative development for Virtualize, a content company that helped produce the first VR fashion editorial, blames what he sees on the industry’s nearsightedness. “[Adding] VR into your monthly batch of social media content and expecting a boost in engagement because it’s ‘all the buzz’ right now isn’t the right first step,” he said.
Similarly, Jeff Frommer, chief of strategy at Malka Media, said brands should be taking a long view on VR, seeing it as a tool and developing a strategy that fundamentally makes their businesses more efficient or their product more attractive to consumers. He went on to point out that the current reliance on one-off experiences prevents brands from really learning about the technology and building it into something more substantial. “[Consumers] want content and games — [but] publishers need the foresight and investment aptitude to think ahead of the current curve, recognizing that VR is going to be with us for a very long time,” he said.
Of course, as with any new technology, reliance on VR comes with risks — low early adoption numbers and uncertain ROIs, to name a few. But Frommer said he’s confident that the early mover advantage will pay off, allowing brands to dominate a soon-to-be saturated market.
Frommer’s team has previously worked on one-off activations for brands like Tresemmé as well as designer Charles Youseff, but this year, they’ll be focused on building immersive VR experiences that allow viewers to shop while in a headset.
That capability is one that’s most likely to impact fashion in the next few years, said Jason Bhargava, a VR consultant and evangelist. According to Bhargava, users may soon be able to stroll through virtual reality malls with true-to-form digital avatars that are created by way of algorithmic body scans.
“Within these malls, the four walls of traditional brick-and-mortar will not pose limitations,” he said. “A store will be able to feature informational demonstrations, celebrity endorsements and an endless array of runways displaying models in outfits that the user selects.”
In the short-term, providing a VR shopping experience may be as simple as allowing users to pick up a product, view it from every angle, obtain information and make a purchase. It is expected that retail giant Amazon already has such a project in the works.
The consumer benefits here are obvious, and if brands are smart, they will also mine these experiences for helpful data, said Sandra Lopez, the vice president of strategic alliances and business development for Intel’s New Devices Group. “What will you learn about your consumer at an aggregate level, and how can you leverage that business intelligence to your advantage?” she said, regarding what brands should ask before jumping into VR.
Lopez predicts that, rather than sharing things freely, as on social media, brands will work towards monetizing the VR experience itself — and runway shows could be the perfect place to start. “Consumers will be willing to pay for a front-row seat, providing designers with an additional revenue stream,” she said.
Apps like Google’s Tiltbrush and Oculus’s Quill (which allow artists to design three-dimensional art, objects, and environments) hint at further financial opportunities. According to Bhargava, brands could not only “test various patterns, designs and cuts without wasting real materials,” they could also allow consumers to do the same: to tweak or design items as they see fit, for a fee.
And as the proliferation of devices increases over the next few years, providing more people with access, brands and publications may also start launching VR-specific series similar to those we’ve seen dominate across online platforms with the rise of video. However, “VR is not linear—it’s not about creating a traditional storyline,” said Lopez, and companies will have to get more creative as a result.
Fashion films and popular interview series like Vogue’s 73 Questions will likely become interactive and more personal, placing the viewer inside the action, rather than off to the side as a voyeur. And advertisements will follow suit.
“[Imagine] it’s 2020 — you’re sitting in your VR set at home, watching something, when it cuts to a commercial break,” Frommer said. “Suddenly, you’re inside a Macy’s store, where Tyra Banks is showing you her new clothing line and encouraging you to try it on.”
Tommy Hilfiger image via The New York Times.